Why We Need Riot Police

They’ve become a familiar sight. The boys in black, thundering through the streets in their iron beasts, on their way to quell the latest disturbance. From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Oakland to Cleveland, riot police have been dispatched to do their duty and protect communities gripped by mass civil disobedience.

So claim those who take the state at its word. The skeptics among us find that reality paints a different picture. Those on the scene in Cleveland, where protesters gathered to express their condemnation of officer Michael Brelo’s supposed innocence in the deaths of two unarmed civilians, found that the tactics utilized by the Cleveland Police Department did more to inflame tensions than anything the protesters did. According to Sam Allard, a CleveScene writer who witnessed the protests firsthand, “officers weren’t trying to prevent a riot. They were trying to trap loners and those clearly not trained in the strategies (and let’s face it, etiquette) of nonviolent protest.” By deploying unnecessary force to corral protesters into a single cramped location, the riot police were able to arrest them for “failure to disperse,” despite the fact that the protesters had “nowhere to disperse to.”

As Allard notes, the fiasco in Cleveland would not have occurred had the police pursued less aggressive methods of law enforcement. But they did not. They deliberately decided to dispatch the most confrontational means of crowd control at their disposal, conforming to a nationwide trend kickstarted by the massive post-9/11 distribution of military equipment to local police departments. The entire nation was stunned by the sight of armored personnel carriers and assault rifle wielding warrior cops in Ferguson, forcing us to recognize the effects of what Glenn Greenwald describes as the “out-of-control orgy of domestic police militarization” propagated by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security under both the Bush and Obama regimes.

Accompanying this deadly deluge is an equally dangerous mentality, what has recently been dubbed the “Rise of the Warrior Cop” in the Radley Balko book of the same name. Balko spoke to Salon regarding this mentality:

So when you arm a cop like a soldier, when you dress ‘em like a soldier, when you tell ‘em to fight in a war and then send ‘em out into a neighborhood that he has no stake in and doesn’t consider himself a part of, you get a very antagonistic, us-versus-them relationship between the officer and that community.

The effects of this mentality are only magnified when riot police come up against entire communities rising up together in protest. Add to this baleful brew warrior cops’ nasty habit — recently confirmed by Berkeley researchers — of instigating violence wherever they go and it becomes immediately apparent that riot police play no protective role whatsoever.

Riot police, via Wikimedia Commons

Riot police, via Wikimedia Commons

If riot police do not serve to preserve peace, their presence at protests preserves only the status quo being challenged and serves only those who benefit from the system as it currently exists. The deployment of armored battalions to combat protesters is a damning indictment of American democracy, a symbolic sight made explicit by the protesters’ chants of “Indict! Convict! Send those killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!

From Roman legionnaires to British redcoats to American warrior cops, states have always utilized force to mask a simple fact, taken for granted and forgotten by so many: states have no real power. The monarchies of old were granted their legitimacy by the supposed “divine right” of kings; as the chosen agents of God, monarchs had the right to rule over His creation. Democratic ideals challenged this notion, and those who advocated such ideals were slaughtered. Soon democracy become the dominant power structure. In a democracy, we are told, governments draw their power from the consent of the governed.

But time and again, this consent proves to be just as hollow an ideal as the divine right of kings. The power struggle between the people and their masters did not end with the advent of democracy, and we are living in tumultuous times. Years of economic catastrophe and political dysfunction have left the American people frustrated and disgusted by a system which chooses to serve the overstuffed few rather than the starving millions, and these frustrated voices are speaking out at an exponential rate. Expect to see more and more of the boys in black as Americans across the nation continue denying this government their consent.

Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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